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Constantine and the Captive Christians of PersiaMartyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity$

Kyle Smith

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780520289604

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520289604.001.0001

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(p.184) Appendix B Martyrdom of the Captives of Beth Zabdai

(p.184) Appendix B Martyrdom of the Captives of Beth Zabdai

Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia

Kyle Smith

University of California Press

The Martyrdom of the Captives of Beth Zabdai is a Syriac history of the capture of Roman Bezabde (Beth Zabdai) on the upper Tigris.1 Ammianus Marcellinus describes the siege of the city in his Res Gestae, and, as a military historian, he is concerned to explain the details of the battle and how the Persians overwhelmed the Roman defenses. But he also mentions a pernicious rumor about the city’s bishop. According to Ammianus, the bishop of Bezabde met with Shapur II during a lull in the fighting and revealed to the king where the walls of the city were the weakest.2 By contrast, the Martyrdom of the Captives says little about the siege or about Heliodorus, the city’s bishop. Instead, it provides an account of what became of the “nine thousand people” whom Shapur captured and deported deep into Persia. The text claims that scores of Christians were then killed near a village on the mountain of Masabdan in the province of Beth Huzaye when they refused to exchange the “religion of Caesar” (deḥlta d-qesar) for the “religion of Shapur” (deḥlta d-shabur)—apparently a condition for beginning a new life in a “rich and fertile” land “planted with vines and olive trees and palms.”3

(p.185) As is frequently the case with Syriac martyrdom narratives, the date of the text’s composition is difficult to establish with any certainty. That said, a Syriac account of the Christians of Beth Zabdai probably existed by the first quarter of the fifth century. We know from Ammianus that the siege was in 360 The Martyrdom of the Captives claims that it happened in “the fifty-third year of Shapur,” or 362/63 We also know that Sozomen was aware of a tradition about the captives and martyrs of Beth Zabdai. He does not provide much information, but he says enough for us to surmise that some version of the Martyrdom of the Captives had made it to Constantinople by the early 440s, when he was writing his Church History. He says that the Persians captured and killed a bishop named “Dawsa” from “a place called Zabdaeus” along with his companion “Maryahb” (whom Sozomen describes as a “chorepiscopus”) and 250 clergy.4 Likewise, the author of the History of Blessed Simeon bar Ṣabbaʻe seems to have known about the deportation of captives from Beth Zabdai, although not necessarily the full story of their martyrdom. When discussing the bishops and priests who were killed with Simeon, the History’s narrator explains that Shapur “had recently built” the city of Karka d-Ledan in Beth Huzaye and that he “settled many captives” there, people he had taken from Beth Zabdai and other parts of Roman Mesopotamia.5

The end of the Martyrdom of the Captives indicates that the mountain on which the captives were killed had become a cult site complete with an annual memorial and a martyrium endowed by the abbot of a local monastery. As Richard Payne has demonstrated, “it was only from 410 onward, when the Sasanian king of kings began to patronize Christian institutions, that bishops, monks, and lay patrons established martyrs’ cults openly and industriously in civic and rural contexts.”6 It is thus possible that the cult site was established in the early fifth century and that the accompanying martyrdom narrative had already made its way to Constantinople and (p.186) Sozomen’s scriptorium by the early 440s. It is more likely, however, that Sozomen knew some early story about the martyrs and that the Syriac text that has come down to us (and is translated here) is a late fifth-or even early sixth-century composition.

My translation is based on the Syriac text of Paul Bedjan; the numbers in curly brackets refer to page numbers in his edition.7


{316} In the fifty-third year of Shapur, the king of the Persians went up against the borders and the fortifications of the Romans. He besieged the fort [qasṭra] of Beth Zabdai and captured it. He demolished its walls and delivered many warriors to the blade of the sword. He captured about nine thousand people, men and women, including the bishop Heliodorus and the elderly priests Dawsa and Maryahb who were with him. Other priests, as well as {317} deacons and the qyama [covenant] of men and women, were captured with them. While they were being led to Beth Huzaye, the king and his army marched there on the road with them.

And it happened that at a certain way station called Dasqarta,8 Bishop Heliodorus fell ill. He laid hands for the episcopacy upon Dawsa and made him the head of all. He also gave over to him the altar that he had brought with him so that he might honorably administer [the liturgy upon] it. And he fell asleep and was buried there in honor.

They left there, and, while they were walking on the road, they began to join together in one place and recite psalms in choirs. And as they were celebrating in this way every day the evil magi were pierced in their hearts, and their minds turned against them, and they accused them before Adarpar, the (p.187) head of the mobeds,9 at whose suggestion was shed much blood of the martyrs of God in the East.

This accursed one [Adarpar] went in before the king and said, “Good King, there is among these captives one who is the head of the Christians, and his name is Dawsa. He gathers together many of the captives, men and women who share his opinion, and they rise in unison and curse and revile your majesty. They do this every day, and {318} once or twice I sent for them and scolded them, but all the more did they vilify you with curses and slander the gods of the Persians.”

The king was in the station of Dursak, in the land of Darraye,10 and he ordered this mobed and a noble one who was with him, who was called Hazarpat, and he said to them, “Go, and bring with cunning the head of these Christians and all his followers, and say this to them: ‘The king is well pleased to do you good, and he commanded that you settle here on this mountain, for the land is fertile, its villages are beautiful, the soil is rich in water, and [the villages] will continually provide for you all the days of your life.’ Watch for when they are all together—those who have been gathering together every day to blaspheme our majesty and insult our gods—bring them up on to this mountain and interrogate them at some place. All those who do my will, who worship the sun and the moon and renounce the god whom Caesar worships, let them settle in these villages as they wish and desire. But whoever does not obey this command, let him be given to the sword and the blade.”

Then these two nobles departed with a hundred cavalry and two hundred infantry, and they summoned before them Bishop Dawsa and Chorbishop Maryahb, the priests and deacons and qyama, and also the lay faithful {319} who were clinging to them. And they said to them all these words in deceit. Their crowd was about three hundred people, and they were taken to the mountain called Masabdan, to a village called Gpetta, and they were put outside the village.

Immediately, this cruel man and shedder of blood, Mobed Adarpar, revealed his treachery and demonstrated his craftiness, and he said to them, “You should know that because you dishonor the king every day and have reviled the gods of the Persians, the king has commanded that all of you are to be slain at this place. But now, if you listen to our advice, you will live and (p.188) be saved. Therefore, do the will of the king and worship the sun and the moon. Abandon the religion of Caesar and embrace the religion of Shapur, the king of kings, because you are his servants and he has authority over you. If you are obedient in this, I have been granted authority by him to let you remain in these villages, which are rich and fertile, and in this land, which, as you can see with your eyes, is planted with vines and olive trees and palms. Moreover, he will give all of you presents and gifts, whatever you ask of me. But if you will not obey the command of the king, then know that today you will die by the sword {320} and not one of you will be allowed to live—according to the decree that we have received from him.”

The courageous Dawsa responded with a loud voice and said, “O people drenched in the blood of their own land and, in addition, reveling in the blood of [other] lands: See your own people and foreigners being killed! Locals and immigrants are slain. And what did you gain, and which excuse will you use? For behold, your punishment is written down by [divine] justice, and the verdict has gone out against you and it will not fail, for you have greatly stained yourselves with the blood of the martyrs of the East, and lo, you will be sprinkled with the blood of the martyrs of the West, so that our innocent blood will seal your written contract along with the righteous blood of the holy martyrs that you have shed.11

“This secret treachery that you revealed to us is our hidden joy, and the iniquitous command that you have showed to us is our open exaltation. Th us, we have not been captured and removed from our country, nor have we died the death of an exile, nor will we die death in captivity. Who is our killer? Let him not stand still and hesitate! Who is our slayer? Let him not delay and linger! One is the god of us all, who, because of our sins, delivered us into your hands. And now he has mercy upon us and he is reconciled with us, for because of him we will die today by your hands.

“Far be it from us to worship the sun and the moon, the work of [God’s] hands, and do the will of your king, that eater of human flesh. {321} For we hold steadfast to our faith and worship our true God—whom Caesar worships as well and in whom he has faith. But as for us, we journey in glory and goodness to the country that is prepared for our journey. But woe unto you, the unclean and impure, who led the East astray with your godless teaching. For (p.189) God will quickly destroy it in you and ruin you in it. He will bring your error to naught and blot out your falsehood from all the land of the East. So know that we all stand firm in this faithful state of mind, as I have made known to you! Therefore, do what you have been commanded and do not delay!”

Then [Mobed Adarpar] commanded the soldiers who were with him, and each time they began to take men and women by groups of fifty and to kill them together until they reached the number of 275 But twenty-five from among the men and women succumbed in the shame of themselves and worshiped the sun. And they allowed them to settle there until this day.

A certain deacon among them, who was called ʻAbdishoʻ, remained alive because the sword did not strike on its edge. After sunset he got up and went to the village. He met a poor man, who brought him into his house and washed and bandaged his wounds. When it was day, ʻAbdishoʻ led this man and his two sons with him, and they walked to the place of those who had been killed. He showed them the bodies of Dawsa, Maryahb, and the other elderly {322} priests. [The man and his sons] climbed a little farther up the mountain, found a small cave, and laid [the martyrs’ bodies] in it and sealed it with large stones. Then they went back down to ʻAbdishoʻ, and they found him kneeling in prayer and crying at the place of those who had been killed.

There were some pagan, Carmanian shepherds who were grazing sheep, and for three nights they saw armies of angels praising God and ascending and descending over that place where the holy ones had been killed.12 [The shepherds] were startled and afraid, and they announced this [event] throughout all the land. On account of this sight, they too converted to the faith.

ʻAbdishoʻ, who was killed by the sword and lived, began to lead to life the souls of those who had been killed by sin. Because of the bones of the righteous ones who had fallen there, he resolved to stay there all his days. And for thirty days he did not cease from teaching the fear of God through deeds and good works.

But when a wicked man, the lord of the village, saw that [ʻAbdishoʻ] converted people from error to knowledge of the truth, Satan entered him in envy and taught him the evil zeal of murder. He seized ʻAbdishoʻ and beat him, and he held him in chains for four days, and he said to him, “If you leave here {323} and never again teach this doctrine in this village, then I will free you and you may go where you please.”

(p.190) The blessed ʻAbdishoʻ said to him, “I have decided in my mind to remain here, and I will not desist from preaching this doctrine in everyone’s ear so that it will hear, be persuaded, and turn to life.”13

This unjust man was thereby enraged, and he led [ʻAbdishoʻ] outside the village to the place where his companions had been killed. He gave fifty silver coins to a Carmanian, and this Carmanian stabbed him with a sword, and he died.

That poor man went out again with his sons, and they lift ed up the corpse of courageous ʻAbdishoʻ and hid it. They erected a heap of many stones over it, and to this day it is called the Tomb of ʻAbdishoʻ.

The wrath of heaven, however, reached the wicked murderer and his house. His four sons were delivered unto a demon, who quickly killed them. The man suffered from dropsy, and he sat on the dung heap in unspeakable agony for thirty days. When he died there, his dogs ate him. His fortune was lost all at once, his servants fled and scattered, his wife begged for bread, and, in her misery, she died as well. And, because it had been dug by hand, the Lord God let loose rats upon the village’s water canal. The rats dug and filled in the water canal with soil. And when the inhabitants of the village gathered together and removed the soil, the rats dug {324} and filled it in again. This happened repeatedly. And since the village suffered from thirst and its plants withered, it became a desert for twenty-two years and was as a curse in the whole land.

After this time, a son of the man who had welcomed ʻAbdishoʻ and buried him and had also hidden the martyrs of God came and prayed at the mouth of the opening of that cave. And he promised to come every year and to celebrate the memorial there. Then he dug out the village canal, built houses, and settled in peace. The Lord God blessed him in [the village], and he took possession of it and it was awarded to him. Every time he performed the memorial there, healing miracles occurred through those holy bones.

A certain abbot was inspired with beautiful zeal for God. He built a martyrium there on that place, took those bones from the cave, and put them in the building he had built. And lo, unto this day gatherings are being held there.

Completed is the Martyrdom of the Captives of the Castra of Beth Zabdai.


(1) See C. S. Lightfoot, “The Site of Roman Bezabde,” in Armies and Frontiers in Roman and Byzantine Anatolia, ed. S. Mitchell (Oxford: BAR International Editions, 1983), 189–204 Guillermo Algaze contested Lightfoot’s conclusions about Bezabde when he identified a major late Roman fortress that closely matches Ammianus’s description. This site, which has not been fully excavated, is approximately ten kilometers upriver from the modern Turkish city of Cizre on the south bank of the Tigris. See Algaze, “A New Frontier: First Results of the Tigris-Euphrates Archaeological Reconnaissance Project, 1988,” JNES 48 (1989): 241–81.

(2) See Amm. Marc. XX.7 and the discussion in chapters 3 and 5.

(3) Deḥlta d-qesar and deḥlta d-shabur are literally the “fear of Caesar” and the “fear of Shapur,” respectively. On the importance of the Syriac term deḥlta (fear) in the Acts of the Persian Martyrs, see A. H. Becker, “Martyrdom, Religious Difference, and ‘Fear’ as a Category of Piety in the Sasanian Empire: The Case of the Martyrdom of Gregory and the Martyrdom of Yazdpaneh,” JLA 2 (2009): 300–336.

(4) Soz. HE II.13.

(5) History of Blessed Simeon bar Ṣabbaʻe 25 Translation from K. Smith, The Martyrdom and History of Blessed Simeon bar Ṣabbaʻe, Persian Martyr Acts in Syriac: Text and Translation, fasc. 3 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2014).

(6) R. E. Payne, “The Emergence of Martyrs’ Shrines in Late Antique Iran: Conflict, Consensus and Communal Institutions,” in An Age of Saints? Power, Conflict and Dissent in Early Medieval Christianity, ed. P. Sarris, M. Dal Santo, and P. Booth (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 90.

(7) See AMS II, 316–24 For a Greek version of the text’s opening lines, see H. Delehaye, Les versions grecques des Actes des martyrs persans sous Sapor II, PO II.4 (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1907), no. 7.

(8) Or Dastaqarta. The location of this “way station” is uncertain, but it may have been near Ctesiphon. The Synod of Dadishoʻ in 424 referred to the excommunication of someone called “Sharbil of Dasqarta of the king.” See K. Smith, “The Synod of Mar Dādišoʻ—424 ce,” in CCCOGD, vol. 5, ed. A. Melloni and F. Lauritzen (Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming). If this is the same city, then “of the king” might indicate that Dasqarta was a royal estate or a crown-owned agricultural area. It may also have been the residence of the Jewish exilarch, as the Babylonian Talmud mentions the city. See G. Herman, A Prince without a Kingdom: The Exilarch in the Sasanian Era (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 137–38.

(9) A mobed is a Zoroastrian priest.

(10) Beth Daraye? If so, this is about 150 kilometers east-southeast of modern-day Baghdad.

(11) This is a complex passage. The implication seems to be that the Sasanian authorities, by killing Christians, have signed a contract in blood and will be punished by divine justice. Note that “the martyrs of the East” refers to Christians who have already been killed in Persia, while “the martyrs of the West” refers to Dawsa and the other captives of Beth Zabdai.

(12) Ancient Carmania (which roughly accords with Kerman Province in contemporary Iran) was southeast of Beth Huzaye and north of the Strait of Hormuz.

(13) It sounds strange, but the “ear” must be the subject of the verbs that follow it.